Music Reviews
10:53 am
Fri April 4, 2014

Carlene Carter Carries The Heavy Burden Of History Lightly

Carlene Carter was born into country-music royalty: Her father, Carl Smith, was a fine country vocalist, and her mother June was not only famous for performing with husband Johnny Cash, but also as part of The Carter Family, the groundbreaking act that ushered in the modern era of country music in the 1920s. Carlene Carter has reached back to that rich material of the Carter Family for much of a new album, Carter Girl, which offers fresh takes on classic songs.

In the late 1970s, Carter made her initial impact as a country singer with a pop lilt. She hit upon the idea of boosting her country music with the energy she heard in the punk and new-wave music coming from England and New York City. In her personal life, this led to a decade-long marriage to the great pop-rocker Nick Lowe; in her professional life, she made a series of fine albums for Warner Bros. That was the music of a young artist; now in her 50s, Carter has developed a gratifying maturity in her singing. You can hear it showcased in the lovely, simple arrangements on this album courtesy of producer Don Was, as Carter interprets another Carter Family classic, "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight."

What Carlene Carter does on Carter Girl is significant. She doesn't approach these old songs as sacred relics to be enshrined with pious respect. Rather, she treats them like living, vital pieces of art that can withstand being taken apart, thought about and re-imagined. Take, for example, "Lonesome Valley." It's a song that was itself an interpretation of a public-domain composition when The Carter Family recorded it, and has subsequently been sung many different ways, by Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez and on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? to name just a few. Carter has taken back the song, added some of her own lyrics about deaths in her family, played some wonderful piano and sung harmony on the chorus with Vince Gill. In the process, she comes up with her own excellent piece of work.

These days, Carlene Carter's voice has taken on a slight huskiness that makes her sound more than ever like her mother, June. And in some respects, Carter Girl has the trappings of a comeback album, with Don Was giving the production a bright sheen and Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook putting in cameo appearances. But on its own terms, Carter Girl is as strong as anything Carter has ever recorded. It carries the heavy burden of history lightly, and yet never flinches at the seriousness of the lives she's singing about, including her own.

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Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

Carlene Carter is the daughter of June Carter and country singer Carl Smith. Her step-father was Johnny Cash. After a successful career as a country pop singer during the 1970s through the '90s, Carlene Carter has kept a low profile in recent years. But now she's back with the album of "Carter Girl." It's a collection dominated by covers of songs made famous by the Carter Family, the pioneering country act whose members included Carlene's grandmother Maybelle Carter. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BLACK TRAIN")

CARLENE CARTER: (singing) There's a little black train a coming. Set your business right. There's a little black train a coming and it may be here tonight. Go tell that ballroom lady, oh, there's still a world of pride. The death star train is coming. Better take a ride. God sent today...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Carlene Carter was born into country-music royalty: Her father, Carl Smith, was a fine country vocalist, and her mother June was not only famous for performing with husband Johnny Cash, but also as part of The Carter Family, the groundbreaking act that ushered in the modern era of country music in the 1920s. Carlene Carter has reached back to that rich material of the Carter Family for much of this new album, offering fresh takes on classic songs. Here's a beautiful version of one of them, "Give Me the Roses."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE ME THE ROSES")

CARTER: (singing) Wonderful things of folks are said when they've passed away. Roses adorn the narrow bed over the sleeping clay. Give me the roses while I live, trying to cheer me up. Useless are flowers that you give after the soul is gone.

TUCKER: In the late 1970s, Carlene made her initial impact as a country singer with a pop lilt. She hit upon the idea of boosting her country music with the energy she heard in the punk and new-wave music coming from England and New York City. In her personal life, this led to a decade-long marriage to the great pop-rocker Nick Lowe; in her professional life, she made a series of fine albums for Warner Brothers Records.

That was the music of a young artist; now in her 50s, Carter has developed a gratifying maturity in her singing. You can hear it showcased in the lovely, simple arrangements on this album courtesy of producer Don Was, as Carter interprets another Carter Family classic, "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE ALL SMILES TONIGHT")

CARTER: (singing) I'll deck my brow with roses. My true love may be there. And gems that others gave me will shine within my hair. And even those that know me will think my heart is light, though my heart may break tomorrow, I'll be all smiles tonight....

TUCKER: What Carlene Carter does on this album is significant. She doesn't approach these old songs as sacred relics to be enshrined with pious respect. Rather, she treats them like living, vital pieces of art that can withstand being taken apart, thought about and re-imagined.

Take, for example, "Lonesome Valley." It's a song that was itself an interpretation of a public-domain composition when The Carter Family recorded it, and has subsequently been sung many different ways, by Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film "O Brother Where Art Thou?" to name just a few.

Carlene has taken back the song, added some of her own lyrics about deaths in her family, played some wonderful piano and sung harmony on the chorus with Vince Gill. In the process, she comes up with her own excellent piece of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME VALLEY")

CARTER: (singing) Woke to the sound of my baby sister crying like the day she was born 'cause an angel of mercy dressed all in right came and said girls, Mama's passed on. So I gather my children around me, through our tears we found a prayer. Talked to God and Jesus and all them guys who knew Mama was already there.

CARLENE CARTER AND VINCE GILL: (singing) Everybody's got to walk that lonesome valley. You've got to walk it by yourself. And nobody here can walk it for you. Got to walk it by yourself.

TUCKER: These days, Carlene Carter's voice has taken on a slight huskiness that makes her sound more than ever like her mother, June. And in some respects, "Carter Girl" has the trappings of a comeback album, with Don Was giving the production a bright sheen and Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook putting in cameo appearances.

But on its own terms, "Carter Girl" is as strong as anything Carlene Carter has ever recorded. It carries the heavy burden of history lightly, and yet never flinches at the seriousness of the lives she's singing about, including her own.

BIANCULLI: Critic Ken Tucker reviewed Carlene Carter's new album "Carter Girl," which will be released Tuesday by Rounder Records. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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